Joseph Smith’s Statement on “The Fundamental Principles of Our Religion.” Part II: The Significance of Willard Richards’ 1853 Revisions.

This is part two of my look at the textual history of Joseph Smith’s oft-quoted statement on “the fundamental principles of our religion.” In the first part, I tried to find the original source of the statement in the Elders’ Journal in 1838, and then traced it through three revisions as it was collected in Willard Richards’ Manuscript History of the Church in late 1843, published in the Deseret News in 1853, and then published again in B.H. Roberts’ History of the Church in 1905. As I noted, the statement was later published again in Joseph Fielding Smith’s 1938 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the church’s 2007 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, but these later publications did not further revise Roberts’ revised text. Roberts’ revision became the standard text quoted by church leaders and members in the 20th century and that tradition continues to this day, with the exception of Elder Ballard, who quoted the original Elder’s Journal text in his October 2014 Conference address.

In this part, we’re going to look at the significance of the revisions.

As a reminder from the first part, there were three revisions of the original text: Richards in 1843, Richards in 1853, and Roberts in 1905.

1) The original 1838 text:

The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, “that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;” and all other things are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion. [1]

2) Richards’ 1843 revised text (revisions in red):

The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, “that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;[;] and all other things[,] are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion. [2]

3) Richards’ 1853 revised text (revisions in blue):

The fundamental principles of our religion is the testimony of the a[A]postles and p[P]rophets concerning Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;[;] and all other things[,] are only appendages to these, which pertain to our religion. [3]

4) Roberts’ 1905 revised text (revisions in green):

The fundamental principles of our religion is [are] the testimony of the a[A]postles and p[P]rophets concerning Jesus Christ, that h[H]e died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven;[;] and all other things [,] [which pertain to our religion] are only appendages to these [it], which pertain to our religion. [4]

Significance of Revisions

Richards’ 1843 revision involves only two minor punctuation changes that don’t appear to have any impact on the meaning of the passage. And Roberts’ 1905 revision, though it is more extensive, is essentially just a change in style and grammar, with one typographical change pertaining to typographical conventions concerning references to deity.

But Richards’ 1853 revision, although it involves only typographical changes, is arguably the most significant. This revision involved two changes: capitalizing “prophets and apostles” and removing the quotation marks around the statement of fundamental principles.

1. From “apostles and prophets” to “Apostles and Prophets.”

I’m a little hesitant to ascribe too much intentional meaning to mere capitalization, but, as I hinted at in the first part, capitalizing “Apostles and Prophets” is consistent with a trend in Utah Mormonism, following the death of Joseph Smith and the succession crisis and schism in Nauvoo, to emphasize the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the center of authority in the church, and to think of apostleship generally not just as a role of witnessing or evangelizing, but to think of the Apostleship as an office bearing authority in the institutional church. (Two of BCC’s own, J. Stapley and WVS, have recently published a pair of excellent books that both discuss aspects of this trend in more detail. )

In the early years of the church, “apostle” didn’t necessarily mean what it means in the church today. It didn’t necessarily mean members of the quorum of the twelve: the articles and covenants (later canonized as section 20), says that “an apostle is an Elder and it is his calling to baptize” and act as a pastor to converts, but the quorum of the twelve wouldn’t even exist for another five years. And even when the Joseph Smith and the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon chose, called, and ordained the first members of the twelve, the twelve were primarily an evangelizing corps, not a center of institutional church authority. See William Victor Smith, Textual Studies of the Doctrine  and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation at 51-57 (Kofford: Salt Lake 2018).

In late 1843, when Richards compiled the questions and answers from the 1838 Elders Journal, the quorum of the twelve was only eight years old. They were still primarily thought of as missionaries and witnesses. They were only two years off of their experience leading evangelizing missions to the British Isles and supervising emigration of converts. They were missionaries, and to the extent they exercised authority it was more to minister to new converts than to administer church leadership. They were pastors more than administrators, regulators, judges, or governors. They were not even always ordained as high priests—this would not change until the early 20th century when Joseph F. Smith insisted that apostles should be High Priests in order to exercise their supervisory powers over local leaders. In 1843 the apostles did not yet exercise the kind of regulating authority that they would exercise after Joseph Smith’s death. It was unclear where that kind of authority rested, but it was in some combination of Joseph Smith himself, the First Presidency as a whole, the Patriarch, the Bishops, and Nauvoo Stake President, and the Nauvoo High Council. This diffusion of authority and lack of clarity was in part what resulted in the succession crisis. See id.

It was in 1842-44 that Joseph Smith introduced the endowment and began to initiate the members of the twelve into the “anointed quorum”—those that received the ordinances that would later become the Nauvoo endowment. That display of trust, combined with John Bennett’s disloyalty and excommunication around the same time, and Sidney Rigdon’s loss of Joseph Smith’s confidence and diminishing reputation among the membership at large through the 1840s, led to a shift of power and apparent successorship away from the First Presidency and toward the President of the Quorum of the Twelve. But in late 1843, when Richards was compiling the Manuscript history, that shift was not yet complete, and it would have been natural for Richards to read the phrase “apostles and prophets” as referring primarily to the witness of the New Testament apostles.

Ten years later, though, when he was publishing the Manuscript History serially in the Deseret News, things were drastically different. Joseph Smith had been dead for almost ten years, and in the schism that followed his death, Brigham Young and the Twelve emerged as the leaders accepted by the majority of church members. And those church members that questioned the authority of the Twelve as successors in church government did not follow the Twelve to Utah. The Utah church membership was therefore already composed of those who were disposed to accept the Apostles’ claim to general church authority. And the hardship of the trek, under Brigham Young’s leadership, the isolation of Utah, and Brigham Young’s assumption of civil authority as well as church authority only solidified his institutional authority and the institutional authority of the Quorum of the Twelve.

So by 1853, it’s natural that Elder Richards thought of himself and the other members of the quorum of the twelve not just as “apostles and prophets,” but as “Apostles and Prophets.” His decision to capitalize those terms when he printed Joseph Smith’s statement of the fundamental principles in the Deseret News reflects that change, and with it, there’s a subtle shift in meaning: Instead of just the testimony of the New Testament apostles, or of apostles conceived of broadly as evangelists, the emphasis seems to be on the testimony of those Twelve living men that hold the Apostleship as a priesthood office with the power and authority of prophecy and seership.

2. “[T]hat he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven.”

Elder Richards also removed the quotation marks around the phrase “that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended up into heaven.” The motivation for removing the quotation marks is unclear. Perhaps Richards or his staff at the Deseret News were unable to locate any source with the exact wording in the quoted material. But whatever the reasoning, as a result of this removal, reading the above statement in the Deseret News or in later sources (Roberts, Smith, and the 2007 Teachings manual) obscures the possibility that Joseph Smith may have been quoting or paraphrasing some other source material when he summed up the “testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ” as a testimony “that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven.” But reading from the original Elders’ Journal, or from the Manuscript History, raises the possibility that this description may have been taken from another source.

If so, what was that source? There are a couple of possibilities:

When I quoted this statement in my Easter Talk a few years ago, I suggested that Joseph Smith may have been paraphrasing Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, see 1 Cor. 15:3-8, or perhaps that he was paraphrasing some earlier source, known to him by revelation, from which Paul, in turn, was also paraphrasing. [5] He may also have been referring to the 1830 articles and covenants (now canonized as section 20:23-24), which functioned as a statement of the church’s fundamental principles as well as a constitution for organization and liturgical forms. But the articles and covenants appear in turn to be paraphrasing a portion of the traditional Apostles’ Creed (“He was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead [or, in some translations, “he descended to hell”]. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven . . .”). [6] Or he may have been paraphrasing its predecessor, the Old Roman Creed, the language of which seems even closer to the 1838 statement of fundamental principles (“[Jesus] was crucified and buried, on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended to heaven . . .”). [7] Of course, whether the 1838 statement and the 1830 articles and covenants were paraphrasing Paul or whether they were paraphrasing the early creeds, it is not unlikely that Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15 and the similar statements in the creeds ultimately all derive from the same early Christian source.

But how did that formulation make its way from the first-century Christians to the author of the July 1838 Elders’ Journal editorial?

One possible answer is that it found its way to Joseph Smith and Thomas Marsh through the Methodist church. Both men had extensive contact with the Methodists. Joseph Smith says that he found himself partial to the Methodists before his First Vision convinced him of a universal apostasy. See A-1 Manuscript History at 2, codified as Joseph Smith—History 1:8. And Marsh had joined the Methodist church in Boston sometime after 1822, before he was baptized into the Church of Christ by David Whitmer in 1830. Many of the earliest church members came from the Methodist tradition, and even those who didn’t, came from a religious environment shaped by Methodist preaching. (See Christopher Jones’ 2009 thesis for a more thorough discussion of the influence of Methodism on early Mormonism.)

United Methodists today use an interrogatory in baptismal services adapted from the Apostles’ Creed where, before being baptized, the baptismal candidate affirms that he or she believes, among other things, in Jesus who “was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven.” I haven’t confirmed that that interrogatory was used by Methodists in upstate New York or New England in the early 1800s, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that the baptismal forms were somewhat constant, or that they used some form of the Apostles’ Creed. The language is close enough to the statement in the Elders’ Journal that it is not an unwarranted assumption that this Methodist adaptation of the Apostles’ Creed may well have been Joseph Smith’s exposure to this particular summary of the New Testament apostles’ testimony.

One objection to the theory that Joseph Smith may have gotten his paraphrase of the “testimony of the apostles and prophets” from one of the creeds, via the Methodist tradition, is that Joseph Smith was famously not fond of the creeds—and in particular, that he singled out the Methodist creeds for criticism. When he dictated what would later become his canonized history, Joseph Smith described Jesus telling him, speaking of the various Christian sects that “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight.” See A-1 Manuscript History 3, canonized as Joseph Smith—History 1:1. And William Clayton later recorded him in an April 1843 sermon criticizing the Nauvoo High Council for having taken disciplinary action against an Elder for his having taught what the Council believed to be false doctrine, stating that the Council’s action “looks too much like methodism and not like Latter-day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church.”

But notwithstanding these critical statements, Joseph Smith also seems to have believed that the creeds did indeed contain some truth. Elder Richards records him in his diary as saying in a sermon in October 1843 that “the creeds of the different denominations . . . all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to though all of them have some thruth [sic].” Joseph Smith Diary (Richards) Oct. 15, 1843. According to Joseph Smith, while the creeds did contain “some things in them [he] could not subscribe to,” the more basic problem is that “I want to come up into the presence of God & learn all things but the creeds set up stakes, & say hitherto shalt thou come, & no further.—which I cannot subscribe to[.]” Id. (One Methodist preacher claimed that in the early 1840s Joseph Smith told him that the Methodists were “nearest right,” and that he went so far as to say that the Mormons “are Methodists…only we have advanced further” but there doesn’t appear to be other corroborating evidence of this conversation. See Christopher Jones’s thesis at 23-24.)

So in spite of his criticism of the creeds, by 1843 Joseph Smith did not understand his vision in the Sacred Grove to mean that the creeds were devoid of truth, and his criticisms of the creeds, focused more on their limiting function than on their substantive doctrine, is consistent with the possibility that he found valuable truths in the creeds. And of course, the idea that Joseph Smith may have been exposed to some form of this early Christian article of faith via the historical creeds, perhaps through the Methodist tradition, and the idea that Joseph Smith received knowledge of that same doctrine through revelation, are by no means mutually exclusive.

Conclusion

Elder Richards’ 1853 changes are typographical, but arguably significant because they illustrate shifting trends in the church in the 1850s.

Whether or not Elder Richards was consciously capitalizing “apostles and prophets” as part of a trend to recognize the Apostleship as the center of institutional authority in the church, this change is consistent with that trend. And removing the quotation marks illustrates a shift away from a largely convert membership that with prior knowledge of traditional creedal Christianity to a largely born and raised membership mostly ignorant of those traditions.

Combined together, these changes illustrate a trend that accelerated in late 19th Century Mormonism to emphasize Apostolic authority.

But let me be clear: I don’t think, and I am not arguing, that Elder Richards was intentionally trying to deceive church members by removing the quotation marks. Virtually all church members in 1853 were converts from other Christian traditions and many if not most of them would have been at least passingly familiar with the creedal statements. I would guess that most of them would recognize it as a paraphrase of the Apostles’ Creed with or without quotation marks. But today, most members of the church are not converts, and have not grown up hearing or reciting or even knowing the Apostles’ Creed. So regardless of Elder Richards’ motivation, the effect of his revision is to obscure what may be a common link between our own fundamental principles and the fundamental principles of other Christian churches.

Why does that matter? Our church and its teachings are distinctive, and we should not be afraid or ashamed of those differences, but neither should be overemphasize differences that are on minor points, nor should we invent differences that aren’t there. We should find common ground with other faiths—not just that we believe in some things at the margins that look similar, but that we believe in the same fundamental principles. In fact, that seems to be what Joseph Smith was doing in the original 1838 Elders’ Journal editorial: He was emphasizing that the fundamental principles on which our church is based are the same fundamental principles common to Christianity, while at the same time frankly acknowledging and celebrating the distinctive spiritual gifts and beliefs that set us apart, but without losing sight of the fact that they are only “appendages” to the fundamental Christian principle.

One other thing: whether he got it from the creeds or whether he got it from somewhere else, paraphrasing an early Christian article of faith is totally consistent with Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. Not all of the restoration was revealing new truth: some of it was gathering old truth and bringing it back to light. When Joseph Smith declared in 1838 what he considered to the fundamental principles of the restoration, maybe he wasn’t just being insightful about what’s important to Mormonism; maybe he was using his prophetic gift to find the earliest Christian doctrine in the creeds and elevate it—not the esoteric differences of doctrine  as the fundamental principle that the restoration was based on.

Whether we recognize it as a paraphrase of the early creeds or not, I’m glad that church leaders continue to quote and teach this statement of the fundamental principles of the church.


[1] 1 Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 44 (July 1838).

[2] B-1 Manuscript History of the Church, 794-96.

[3] “History of Joseph Smith,” Deseret News, April 2, 1853, at 1.

[4] B.H. Roberts, 3 History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Period I, History of Joseph Smith the Prophet, by Himself 30 (Deseret News Press 1905).

[5] See 1 Corinthians 15:3-8: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren [testimony of the prophets?] at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles [testimony of the apostles?]. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.”

I’m no New Testament scholar, but from what I’ve read, Paul wrote this letter in about 54 AD. See James Faulconer, Scripture Study, Tools & Suggestions, ch. 6 “Cross Referencing” (Maxwell Institute, 1999). But many scholars believe that Paul did not write the passage about Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection himself, but that he was quoting an early Christian article of faith written perhaps as early as within the first five years after the resurrection. See Geza Vermes, The Resurrection: History and Myth 121-2 (Penguin Books 2008).

[6] English translation of the original Latin from the Catholic Catechism in English.

[7] English translation from Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Creeds 102 (Longman, 1972).

Comments

  1. I love this! Thanks for this further detail and information.

  2. Thanks, John.

  3. Jack of Hearts says:

    This and the first are a phenomenal pair of posts. Thank you for sharing your investigation and conclusions with us.

  4. Thanks, Jack!

  5. J. Stapley says:

    This is really great, JKC. The stuff from the Apostle’s Creed is in the Methodist baptismal liturgy in the early 19th century.

    I think the capitalization and removal of the quotation marks are doing the same thing. It shifts the fundamental principles from the quoted text to the testimony of “Apostles and Prophets,” in my opinion.

  6. JKC, Thank you for this. It is very useful to have more context for what once seemed to be an unacknowledged near quotation from one of the creeds that had stood out to me in contrast to what I understood some folks thinking was the meaning of JS’ apparent denigration of creeds. I have wondered, as others have, if the problem with the creeds was not more their use as dividing the Body of Christ into right-thinking Christians and wrong–thinking Christians [or non-Christians] than their specific content. The comments quoted on the creeds limiting function seem to refine, if not recast, that idea. But there are stock phrases often repeated in fast & testimony meetings in ways that have had me wondering whether we don’t also sometimes use what might be called a “creed” as a divisive tool. I need to think more on that and its implications.

  7. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Yes, this is great JKC. Thanks for pulling it together. A couple of quick thoughts, if I may:
    1. I’m a little less interested in why Elder Richards removed the quotation marks than I am in why they were included, in the first place. Whatever the original source, the quotation marks indicated that they came from…somewhere else. Joseph (assuming he was the author) didn’t bill them as his own thoughts, but deliberately borrowed them. I think that means something.
    2. I think the change from “these” to “it” is significant. Although it fits with the rearrangement of the phrases, I think it’s meaningful. This makes the quotation pertain to the Church, as an entity, rather than referring to the elements of the creedal statement. So, rather than all other things being appendages to these elements of the creed, all other things are appendages to The Church. That really is an important departure from the original intent, to my mind.

  8. Really well put Turtle.

  9. JR: We’ve discussed a few times at BCC what the real problems are with the creeds. The surface level interpretation is that the creeds are bad because they get doctrine wrong, but that doesn’t work very well because there are examples of church leaders and members believing and teaching things that are wrong according to current doctrine, without them being called abominable. The real problems, as I see them are:
    1. They divided the body of Christ and were used as weapons to persecute heretics.
    2. They limited belief about God’s nature to what was known or believed and shut out future revelation.
    3. They became so esoteric and academic that they were easily misunderstood by the people in the pews (even today, many or most people that haven’t studied the issue think of the doctrine of the Trinity as indistinguishable from modalism).
    4. They reduced God to a bundle of philosophical propositions instead of a living being.
    5. They made the criteria of what it means to be a Christian a matter of doctrinal esoterica instead of a matter of exercising faith and repentance.

    Like you, I’m most persuaded by #1. The history of persecution of heretics is enough to convince me. From his published sermons, Joseph Smith seems most concerned with 2-4, but the revelations he dictated seem to me to be more concerned with 1, 4 & 5. In any organization, a certain amount of line-drawing is probably inevitable, but my personal opinion is that it’s a constant temptation to create exclusionary creeds, and it’s an impulse that we should guard against, or at least limit it to the vary narrow categories of true non-negotiables, which are very few.

  10. Turtle: Yes. The removal itself is only significant to the degree that they were significant in the first place. I do think it’s important that Joseph was willing to borrow truth from other sources, whatever those sources were.

    Interesting point about the change from these to it. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. Thanks for sharing that.

  11. J.: Thanks for confirming that! Yeah, I think you’re right: both changes are consistent with the ascendant primacy of the Apostleship in the late 19th century.

  12. Just a Student says:

    After 3 revisions, you’d think the statement would be grammatically correct by now. Maybe by the fourth? (Hint: “principles” is plural, but the last “it” is not. If “it” is referring to the “testimony,” which is singular, you still have the problem of a plural “fundamental principles” being equated with a singular “testimony.”).

    The funny thing is that previous people tried to correct the grammar, but just didn’t get it quite right. Heaven help us.

  13. Just a Student says:

    Sorry – 2nd observation – how annoying that the revised quote is put in “quotes” in all the manuals as if Joseph Smith actually said it that way. This is just incorrect and arguably deceptive.

  14. Student: I think Roberts’ revision is grammatical if you read “it” as referring to “our religion.”

    On your second point, it’s put into quotes because they are quoting the work of B.H. Roberts (or quoting Joseph Fielding Smith, who was quoting B.H. Roberts). So I think your beef is with Roberts more than with the manual writers, but I don’t think Roberts was trying to misrepresent what Joseph Smith said; I think he saw himself as just cleaning up the grammar. Whether he should have done so without indicating changes in brackets is another question. That’s a breach of today’s standards, at least in academic writing. I don’t know what the expectations were in 1905, but I suspect they were different. But if your point is that manual writers today should quote the 1838 Elders’ Journal instead of Roberts, I agree that that’s the better practice, as I said in the first part.

  15. As as Elder Ballard’s example shows, you can use the original in devotional materials without any ill effects!

  16. But I agree with you that there’s still a formal mismatch between “principles” and “testimony.” To make it formally correct it would be something like “the fundamental principles of our religion are those contained in the testimony…,” but that’s kind of unwieldy. Better would be “the fundamental principle of our religion is…”

  17. Great fun. Nice trace!

  18. Good stuff! Thanks for putting this together.

  19. Thanks, WVS and Bro. B!

  20. Aussie Mormon says:

    Breaking down the 1905 Roberts version based on my reading:
    (1)The fundamental principles [a group]
    (2)–>of our religion [what the group belongs to]
    (3)——>are [plural because (1) is a group]
    (4)———->the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets [(1) is what the testimony consists of].
    (5)—————->concerning Jesus Christ [what the testimony is about]
    (6)——————–>that He died [(5)-(9) are stating what (1/4) is]
    (7)——————–>was buried [(5)-(9) are stating what (1/4) is]
    (8)——————–>and rose again the third day [(5)-(9) are stating what (1/4) is]
    (9)——————–>and ascended into heaven [(5)-(9) are stating what (1/4) is]
    (A)and all other things [things not relating to the fundamental principles]
    (B)—>which pertain
    (C)——->to our religion
    (D)———->are only appendages to it. [“it” being (C)].

    Based on that, if I were to do a complete reword (based on my reading) it would be something like:

    The fundamental principles of our religion are that Jesus Christ died, was buried, rose again on the third day, and ascended into heaven. These principles form the testimony of our Apostles and Prophets. Everything else beyond these principles, are appendages to our religion.

    But that is using three sentences to do what one did before.

  21. Ryan Mullen says:

    Fascinating pair of posts. It’s always interesting to me to learn about how our church has positioned itself relative to other religions over time.

  22. Or another way to standardize the grammar might be “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimonies…”

  23. Neil Is King says:

    Maybe it’s been mentioned previously, but it appears the “Are Mormons Christian” opening paragraph accurately includes this quote in its original form. I think that’s noteworthy.